Travel chaos ‘could get worse before it gets better’, unions warn
Unions have warned travel chaos at airports “could get worse before it gets better”, as the Transport Secretary demanded reassurance on Tuesday that summer holidays would not be ruined.
Holidaymakers have been hit with widespread delays and cancellations as airports and airlines have struggled to recruit enough staff after laying off workers during the pandemic. Despite massive recruitment campaigns, unions warned that the industry was still not paying enough.
Andy Prendergast, GMB National Secretary, said that workers were laid off after decades off service and “ got better paid jobs elsewhere without the terrible conditions”.
“ This is going to get worse unless the Government and employers get ahead of it and at the moment we’re not seeing that…To solve the problem airports and operators need to offer fair wages and plan for peaks in demand.”
Garry Graham, the deputy general secretary of the Prospect union also warned that disruptions to travel “could get worse this summer before they get better” because of “staff shortages across the industry”.
Grant Shapps accused airlines of overselling flights relative to their capacity to deliver and said he was summoning industry bosses to seek urgent reassurance on their plans for the upcoming summer holidays.
Around 10,000 flights are set to leave the UK on the Jubilee weekend, between Thursday and Sunday, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. However, airlines have been cancelling hundreds of flights a day as they struggle to meet a wave of demand for travel after two years of lockdowns.
Both Tui and Easyjet announced a fresh set of cancellations on Tuesday, with the former cancelling a quarter of their weekly flights out of Manchester airport for all of June.
Contract staff ‘paid very poorly’
The main challenges are with ground handling contractors used by the airlines for baggage handling, restocking food and drink, check-ins and boarding.
A senior air industry source said: “Ground handling firms are paid very poorly by the airlines and have been for many years. They have had bankruptcies and gone into administration over the years. In this pandemic, they cut back their staff quite significantly because they were not being paid by the airlines. So they had to staff up very quickly but they could not offer the pay uplift to attract the people they need.”
Mr Shapps said: “It’s been very distressing to see passengers facing yet more disruption at airports – having well-earned holidays cancelled and plans left in disarray. We’ve been clear that industry leaders need to tackle the issues we saw at Easter head-on. Although some steps have been taken, we are still not seeing the progress we need to.
“We will be meeting with airports, airlines and ground handlers again to find out what’s gone wrong and how they are planning to end the current run of cancellations and delays,” he added, “I also want to be reassured on their plans for the upcoming summer holidays.”
Soaring demand and daily cancellations mean flights at short notice are selling out quickly as holidaymakers scramble to get on the next available service. Some are struggling to get back from trips abroad and others are having to abandon hopes of going away all together.
Charli Harris, 36, a customer care advisor from Devon, said her honeymoon was ruined after EasyJet cancelled her flight from London Gatwick to Rome less than three hours before departure.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world. We were so looking forward to a break after two years of so many ups and downs,” she said. “We arranged childcare for the week, coinciding with half term, with their grandparents taking annual leave to look after them. We couldn’t rebook as we needed to get home.”
Ms Harris was initially offered another flight that morning, but when she tried to buy it she found out that it was already booked. Nothing was available for at least 48 hours, she said.
Another passenger complained online about having to wait three days for the next available flight after theirs was cancelled at the gate at Gatwick Airport.
Airlines must offer passengers whose flights are cancelled another service at the “earliest opportunity”. This includes booking them with other airlines when necessary.
Passengers complained that this option was not offered to them at the airport although EasyJet maintains that it will reimburse passengers who book with another carrier if they are unable to get on another flight within 24 hours.
Airlines inundated with compensation claims
Consumer groups urged holidaymakers to keep hold of their receipts as airlines are being inundated with claims for compensation.
Aviation data firm Cirium said 291 departures from major UK airports had been cancelled between May 25 and 31. EasyJet and Tui on Tuesday announced new cancellations for flights in up to three weeks’ time.
The problem is being driven by soaring demand but also widespread staff shortages, which is stretching the industry to breaking point and shows no sign of relenting. At Manchester Airport police were reportedly forced to step in to explain to passengers that their flights would be cancelled although Tui denied any knowledge of this.
A major source of pain for airlines is the recruitment of baggage-handling contractors. Passengers have had to wait for days to get hold of their luggage, while others have had bags go missing.
Sophie Johnston, 27, a nurse, said Ryanair lost her bridesmaid items for a wedding in Valencia.
“The mother of the bride is in bits. Having a wedding is stressful enough without the added pressure of not having things – some of the men don’t have any suits as well,” she said. “People will just have to come in whatever they can find. Out of the party of eight of us travelling, I think there’s five or six bags that are gone.”
The problems are not confined to the airline industry as a surge in demand for holidays is affecting businesses across the travel sector.
Eurostar passengers faced a “total shambles” as they were forced to wait for up to three hours in queues that snaked along roads outside London’s St Pancras station on Tuesday. Eurostar blamed the delay on a technical fault on a train.
EasyJet said that the chaos was being compounded by travel agents who were failing to pass on important flight cancellation details to their passengers. “We fully understand how inconvenient last-minute cancellations can be and we are very sorry for this,” the airline said.
“We provide direct communications to customers on cancelled flights with their options to rebook or receive a refund, along with information on booking hotel accommodation where required and information on other entitlements, including rebooking with alternative carriers where no easyJet flights are available.”
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